Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon is being talked of as "Patrick O'Brian with dragons," which may, combined with the first chapter, give a slightly inaccurate impression. It's not a naval story, but is instead somewhere between "if Patrick O'Brian were writing about dragons instead of ships" and "if Stephen Maturin were a dragon." It's set in an alternate history where dragons have been domesticated from early days, and "now," in the Napoleonic Wars, are used as an air force: everything from scouts to bombers, with crews of an appropriate size. The dragons are sentient, articulate partners; and Temeraire, the dragon partnered with our human point-of-view character Will Laurence, holds anti-authoritarian political views rather like Maturin's, which sit uneasily with their military service. In short, this isn't about ships, but has a great many of the virtues of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels all the same. (Indeed the overall feel is fairly concrete and low-key; there may be some magic necessary to the dragons' functions (hand-waving about airsacs aside), but if so, that's about the only place for magic that I can see.)
It has virtues of its own, too, the most obvious of which is the dragons. They are a bit like Anne McCaffrey's in that they bond with one person upon hatching; but they communicate orally not telepathically, can outlive their first handler, and are generally smarter and have more personality. The largest can also carry quite sizable crews, including riflemen and bombers; and generally speaking the Royal Aerial Corps doesn't feel far off from the Royal Navy in its professional aspects.
It is different in some of its social and personal aspects [*], which serves two purposes: it makes the company more palatable to present-day tastes, and it pushes Laurence even further out of his entrenched habits of thought and helps him grow. Laurence's development individually and as a partner to Temeraire is one of the book's strands; the other is their training and first engagements in the Corps.
[*] I have a minor quibble about one of these aspects, but I'm not sure whether something that comes on page 145 should be counted a spoiler or not. I'll put it in a separate post just to be safe.
I enjoyed this very much, finding it a solid, thoughtful, entertaining and absorbing creation. I'm looking forward to the next two, which will be released at the end of this month and the end of next; I believe, judging from advance reviews, that they are largely set out of England as relatively stand-alone stories. I do hope that we'll get some exploration of the alternate part of the alternate history; things start diverging in this book, and I'm quite curious how important those divergences will be. On the whole, unless you're absolutely allergic to both the nineteenth century and dragons, I'd say to check this out.
[Originally posted at my LiveJournal while this booklog was down; there are comments there.]
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